Exquisite: ‘City Of Death’ at 40

Mark Trevor Owen celebrates a Doctor Who classic, which first aired on this day in 1979.

“Doctor Who’s seventeenth season must rank as one of the most challenging and chaotic periods in the history of the show. And yet in the middle of this, emerges ‘City of Death’ – four episodes that dance dangerously close to Doctor Who perfection. There are many factors in the magic spell that was cast….”

How? How is the Doctor Who story ‘City of Death’ forty years old? Like the Mona Lisa’s smile or Paris itself, surely it belongs to the ages now, transcending mere numbers?

Picture credit: All images © BBC

If you haven’t seen ‘City of Death’ then I am deeply jealous of you. You have it lying in wait for you in the future. A work of art to unwrap and savour. For while the one statement that unites  Doctor Who fans is that they can never agree on any topic, ‘City of Death’ is unarguably one of the show’s greats.

It’s a hugely inventive tale of an alien warrior who’s been trapped on Earth for millions of years. He wants to go back in time and rewrite history. Which never works out well. To achieve this he’s cooked up a plan involving various priceless art treasures, a beautiful woman (probably) and a mad professor who think he’s inventing a new type of chicken.

A beautiful woman (probably).

With a plot synopsis like that, it will come as no surprise to learn that one of the co-writers hiding behind the BBC in-house pseudonym ‘David Agnew’ is Douglas Adams. He was holding down a day job as Doctor Who‘s script editor, while all around him The Hitch Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy was gearing up to go properly intergalactic.

Adams, co-writing with producer Graham Williams put the script for ‘City of Death’ together, terrifyingly close to the last minute after another story imploded, in just four days. The director Michael Hayes claimed that he was literally waiting downstairs for Adams and Williams to finish the scripts, so he could start work.

‘City of Death’ was neither the first or last Doctor Who script to have such a hectic creation. What must have made it even more stressful for all concerned, is that this particular crisis fell in the middle of an unprecedently difficult time.

The seventeenth season, of which ‘City of Death’ is a part, must rank as one of the most challenging and chaotic periods in the history of the show. Inflation spiralled out of control, causing Daleks to fall part in mid-scene and a monster to look so unintentionally rude it caused an internal BBC inquiry. A director left in unclear circumstances after alienating the cast. The season of stress climaxed when the planned epic finale, ‘Shada’ was abandoned midway through production, a victim of the ongoing clash between management and unions.  Graham Williams’ time as producer ended in disappointment.

And yet in the middle of this, emerges ‘City of Death’ – four episodes that dance dangerously close to Doctor Who perfection. There are many factors in the magic spell that was cast.

The most noticeable one is the location work. Future producer John Nathan-Turner was then working as production unit manager. He impressed his superiors by writing a budget breakdown that would allow them to film some material for ‘City of Death’ actually on location in Paris. The original, now rather unthinkable plan was to record the whole story in studio at BBC Television Centre.  The production team were clearly keen to make sure even the most casual viewer spotted that they’d swapped their usual quarry locations for something more glamorous and recognisable.  The location work is Paris with a capital P. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame cathedral and of course, The Louvre are all heavily featured. The first episode contains a wordless montage of location work, as stars Tom Baker and Lalla Ward run pell-mell through the city. It adds very little to the plot but enriches the look of the programme greatly. Doctor Who wasn’t broadcast in France until many years after 1979, and the sight of chic Parisians looking askance at the Doctor’s ridiculous scarf is unflaggingly cherishable.

The incidental music is another aspect that alerts you to the fact that this is a rater special slice of Who. Composer Dudley SImpson had composed the music for hundreds of episodes, since the days of William Hartnell. His work is often key to providing a gloss of improving style to episodes where the script or the visuals don’t quite cut the mustard. With no such fire-fighting to do on ‘City of Death’, Simpson revels in the material he’s given to score, producing a rich, thrilling, audacious soundtrack, with tips of the hat to Gershwin and Mancini.

You could list so many of the elements that make up any Doctor Who story – cast, design effects – which on this one glorious instance all click together absolutely exquisitely, like a rare and precious puzzle box.  This article is a celebration of one of Doctor Who‘s high points, not a review. I’ve deliberately steered clear of going into too much detail. If you know ‘City of Death’ then you’re aware of what treasure trove it is. If this piece has encouraged you to go and discover the story for the first time, hopefully you can dive in as unspoilered as possible.

Forty years. That’s merely the blink of a solitary eye for a stranded Jagaroth. In another forty years there will still be viewers discovering ‘City of Death’ and falling for its spirit, its life, its ethos. In the years that have passed since its debut, audiences have got less sniffy about accepting television as an art form.  How appropriate that ‘City of Death’, a story that throws the Doctor into a world of art, should emerge as a masterpiece.


❉ ‘City Of Death’ was originally broadcast on BBC One, 29 September – 20 October 1979. ‘City of Death’ was released on VHS videotape in April 1991 with a cover by Andrew Skilleter. It was re-issued on VHS in 2001. A DVD of the serial was released in 2005, which incorporated numerous special features including a commentary by actors Julian Glover and Tom Chadbon, as well as director Michael Hayes, and the behind-the-scenes documentary “Paris in the Springtime”.

❉  Other media: On 1 January 2013, AudioGO released a two-hour soundtrack of the serial, narrated by Lalla Ward. A vinyl release of the soundtrack was released in 2018 exclusively for Record Store Day. James Goss’ novelisation of City of Death was published by BBC Books on 21 May 2015.An abridged version was published as part of the Target Collection 5 April 2018.

❉ Mark Trevor Owen is a writer with work published by BBC Isle of Man, Miwk Publishing and Chinbeard Books. He writes a regular newspaper column in the Isle of Man Examiner and tweets @MarkTrevorOwen

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